Day 4: When Plans and the Unexpected Collide

We have one essential rule when we camp (aside from no pooping in the camper): “Plan your trip. Work the plan. Be flexible.”

Sometimes things go wrong.

This year’s trip was an uncommon splurge for our family. We are doing more “commercial” things this year than ever before — Universal Studios Orlando, the Ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park, Kennedy Space Center, a fan boat ride in the Everglades, etc.

Normally, we are highly economical with our trips. We haven’t ever spent more than $1,800 for an entire 3-4-week family vacation. Even then, most of it was fuel.

In each of our trips, something minor went wrong.

At the top of a mountain on our California trip, we discovered that the tires of the pop-up were worn to the mesh under the rubber. We were lucky not to have had a blow-out on our first 3,000 miles. We drove nervously for an hour to get to a tire shop in Bishop, CA, because the shops in Mammoth Lakes couldn’t guarantee they could take care of us within a couple of days, and we needed to get to the Grand Canyon.

On our Montana trip, we had two close calls. First, when we camped at the top of a hill outside of Jackson, WY, my Honda Pilot showed hot transmission fluid and a check engine light. Similarly, when we reached the top of Pike’s Peak, that same car was huffing and puffing. The fan ran for a while after the car was off to cool down.

In both of these scenarios, we escaped major issues. So, I guess we were due. But first, let’s talk about what this month had already wrought.

May — Home Air Conditioning Failure

At the beginning of May, our home Air Conditioner went out. The stock AC unit that came with our starter home lasted a good 16 years before finally tuckering out.

If that has ever happened to you, you know it can be a heavy financial setback. We shopped around, found a great company, negotiated a low cash price, and upgraded our unit. The final cost for a 2-stage, scratch and dent AC was $6,800. A bargain for the unit we bought, but ouch.

May — Minivan Transmission Failure

Four days before we left town for our Florida trip, LaShera told me that something was wrong with the minivan. She took it to the mechanic and we got the news we expected — the transmission is failing.

We had a choice — get a rebuilt transmission ($3,300) installed by our guy for a total of about $4,500 after labor on a car barely worth $2,000, or look for a new-to-us vehicle.

We are currently a 1-car family.

When we return, we begin searching for a new, used car. Conservatively, that will be at least $10,000.

May — Day 3 of our Florida Trip, the Upper and Lower Ball Joints on the Expedition Wore Out

As we coasted into our spot in the dark in Wilmington, NC, I heard a few abnormal noises coming from the front driver side. It sounded like a rusty spring when I went over a bump and a loud rubbing rubber sound each time I cranked the wheel hard right or left.

Putting safety of the family first, I decided to take it to a mechanic. Early on day 4, while the other bears were still asleep in their beds, I went in search of someone to help. The clock was ticking. This time of year, adding an extra night to our reservation is slim at best, and we’re due in Savannah, GA, on day 5.

The best reviewed mechanic said they couldn’t help for several days. I could see it was true because they had cars up on all of the lifts in their garage.

They recommended someone down the road. When I talked with that mechanic, they too were swamped.

The other mechanics in the area had poor reviews, and I didn’t want to trust our safety to a 2-star mechanic. So, I did what I loathe. I took the car to the Ford service center. (I have never been in a service department of any car company where they didn’t work their hardest to reach a minimum $2,000 service charge on $200 worth of parts.)

Even the Ford service center couldn’t guarantee checking out my car the same day. With the next closest Ford house an hour away, I took a shot and left it anyway. Then, I rented a car from their on-site rental office.

I moved all of our gear, food, etc., to the back of a little white Ford Escape. My truck is now sitting at the Ford house 20 miles away. Of course, this car doesn’t have a hitch. So, until my car is done, the camper can’t move.

If we don’t have the car back in time for checkout Thursday, the people with this site after us will be rather unhappy. My likely backup is to ask them to tow us up to the office parking area to park the camper so that we don’t inconvenience their plans. My real hope is that the late check-out time (3pm) buys enough time to get our car back and vacate the premises.

With nothing further we could do today while we waited for a verdict on my car, we did what anyone would do in that situation — we went to the beach.

The high spirits didn’t last long.

While I was at the beach, Ford called. The verdict — a $2,200 repair for the upper and lower ball joints.

A few thoughts — first, dealership repairs are a rip-off. You’re mostly paying for inflated repair time. The parts themselves are a few hundred bucks. Second, they always upsell service add-ons, since most people don’t know what those things mean. But, they sound important. I declined the upsells. Third, the only reason I was at a dealership was because of the safety of my family and the continuance of our trip, and because I figured they would have the necessary parts on-hand. I needed to get back to Texas without a wheel falling off.

Even with refusing the upsells, I’m looking at $1,800 to fix my car during our vacation. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on whether they wrap it up in time for us to make it down the road before the gate closes on our next destination.

May Was Expensive

If you have been running the math, you can see that May threw $20,000 in unexpected charges our way. And, I’m sure you can guess my disposition when I received that call.

Frame of Mind

After spending a couple of hours riding the cold waves along the North Carolina shore, I managed to cool my head. I felt like I needed to write to reflect. The remainder of this post is my stream of consciousness and how I make peace with the circumstances upon us.

What We Teach Our Kids About Money

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you have seen my posts about what we teach our kids about money. A few of the essentials:

  • Buy what you need, not everything you want. Know the difference.
  • Save for the unexpected.
  • Borrowing money comes at a cost.

The unexpected circumstances of our trip are a practical lesson for our children about how our financial principles collide. Here are some things you should know about our family views on money.

  • We still live in our starter home and aren’t likely to move. In fact, we hope to be mortgage free within 5 years.
  • LaShera and I have modest incomes. We work at a small college at a fraction of what someone would earn at a comparable institution. But, we work there because 1) we believe in the mission and 2) it affords us the luxury of time for our summer trips.
  • That demands that we plan for the unexpected by building an emergency fund.
  • We always buy used vehicles.
  • We understand the risks of used cars, and we budget for likely repairs.
  • We prefer the freedom of not having a car payment.
  • We pay cash for vehicles when possible. If it isn’t possible, we take the best terms to get the lowest rate, make sure there isn’t a prepayment penalty, and then pay off the loan as aggressively as possible.
  • We manage our credit so that, when urgent situations arise, we easily and predictably qualify for the loan we need.
  • We view interest as a service charge. That keeps us paying it off ASAP. On our last 2 cars, the loan provider only made $56 (combined) from us.
  • I love using the company Lightstream Loans. If you have great credit and qualify for a loan, they deposit the money into your checking account, and you get to negotiate a “cash price” with a dealer rather than having a lien on the vehicle. (Deposits usually clear within 2 days.)
  • For car maintenance, we avoid dealerships (except for this trip). We have a guy who has always done good work, gives good rates, and tells us when something is unnecessary, despite what the dealership tells us. Our service bills are routinely a third of what dealerships charge for the same service.
  • We drive our cars until they die (obviously). The van was at 200,000 miles when the transmission went bad.
  • We buy a lot of used things.

Perspective

With all of those things in mind, I reflect back on our essential rule. “Plan the trip. Work the plan. Be flexible.”

The deluge of unexpected charges is daunting. But, principles are fixed. Just like we paid off 2 bachelor’s degrees, 2 master’s degrees and a doctorate; just like we’ve paid off every car we’ve owned; and just like we’ve paid for this vacation in advance; we will pay off these items through diligence and intentional living.

It sets back our goal of paying down our mortgage. That is tough to swallow. But, it isn’t insurmountable.

These obstacles converging are an opportunity for our children to see how emergency funds, frugal living, responsible use of money, and credit scores interplay.

Addie asked if this car issue ends our trip. Our quick answer was “no.” It makes it more difficult. But, it doesn’t change the plan.

We played in the surf. Twice.

We hiked to spot carnivorous plants.

In the morning, we’ll eat a great breakfast. I’ll hope I get the call from Ford telling me the car is ready. We’ll pop down the camper by 1, so that either we’re ready to head down the road, or it can be moved so that we don’t ruin someone else’s vacation.

Did I say this is day 4 of a 27-day trip?

Se la vie.

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